The ”Necessity” of Political Protest

September 30, 2010

A Las Vegas judge may be in the process of ruling that drone warfare is a war crime and that protesting against it is a “necessary” duty of citizens, even if they must trespass on military property to do so.

A couple of years ago, I drove up to Santa Barbara to attend a Federal Court trial in support of several peace workers who had been arrested for trespassing on Vandenberg Air Force Base in protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We gathered the evening before the trial at the Immaculate Heart Community for a spaghetti dinner and trial preparation and I met with several of the protestors, including Fr. Louis Vitale and Fr. Steve Kelly.

Father Vitale spoke about standing vigil outside the gate at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada watching as the “pilots” who remotely fly drones on the opposite side of the world drive home at the end of their shift. He spoke about the pilot’s seeming detachment from the consequences of their missile attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the efforts of the protestors to dissuade them from their war crimes.

The Vandenberg protestors’ defense was that “the Iraq War violates international law, and the defendants were acting nonviolently to address that.” Nonetheless, they were convicted of trespass and were sentenced to pay fines, instead of their usual jail terms.

Undeterred, Fathers Vitale and Kelly continued to witness against the illegal wars of aggression being fought by the United States and to be arrested for their nonviolent protests.

On April 9, 2009, three weeks after being sentenced in Santa Barbara, Fr. Vitale and Fr. Kelly, along with 12 other activists, including Kathy Kelly of the Voices for Creative Nonviolence, were arrested as they attempted to enter Creech AF Base to distribute a letter describing their opposition to “a massive targeted assassination program.”

When the case came to trial in the Las Vegas Federal Court two weeks ago, the defense called former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, retired Army Colonel Ann Wright and Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights. The witnesses testified to the defense of “necessity,” in which a violation of the law is excused because the crime was committed for a greater good.

The witnesses testified that the U.S. drone attacks remotely launched from Creech indiscriminately kill large numbers of civilians and that such intentional targeted killings are war crimes. Finally, they argued that every citizen has a duty to disobey laws that perpetuate crimes against humanity.

That such a defense was even allowed was unheard of, but what was amazing is that Judge William Jensen actually found that there was more at stake than the “usual meaning of trespass.” He has recessed the trial until January 27, 2011 to give him time to consider the defense and to render a verdict.

Writing this week, columnist Robert Koehler said: “Time will tell whether a door has really opened here, and whether the Nuremberg principles have truly become relevant in American life and jurisprudence again. But what if they have? What if the moral force of peace has found its voice in a nation long thought to have given up on such matters and gone shopping permanently?”

More than thirty years ago, I asked a related question in a poem entitled “War:”

Men of intellect

Now man battlements

Of lighted consoles;

Their computerized decisions

But scarcely sense

The taste of battle and death.

Those who stand at the button:

Your voice of reason inside

Shall never move

Your hand;

Only what you’ve become

Would destroy Man.

Boys shall always play

With the toys of war,

Until women choose as husbands,

Men for whom,

War has become an abhorrent chore.

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